One-to-One with Local Resident, Creator & Curator of the Gluten Free Garage, RonniLyn Pustil
It seems that at most gatherings in recent years the group has been divided into two distinct categories—those with gluten intolerances of varying degrees and those without. I am decidedly in the camp of “without.” I might even go so far as to say I LOVE gluten, so when I was asked to do an interview with RonniLyn Pustil, creator and curator of the Gluten Free Garage, I can honestly say I was skeptical about whether I was the right choice for the assignment. Being a forever-curious type of food writer, however, it seemed silly to pass up such an interesting and otherwise previously unknown to me opportunity.
We agreed to meet at the Almond Butterfly Bakeshop at 100 Harbord, which, as RonniLyn put it, “would give some colour to our meeting.” She was absolutely right. Almond Butterfly is a sweet (pun intended) little café that is 100% gluten free. It became immediately apparent that it is a neighbourhood hotspot. RonniLyn encouraged me to try any number of their gorgeous gluten-free goods, and I will admit that the glass-fronted display case was filled with mightily tempting treats.
RonniLyn’s story—or, more accurately, her daughter Lily’s story—has been told before but it bears repeating. It is not only interesting and educational (especially for a newbie like me) but also tugged at my heartstrings, particularly when I learned of this little girl’s bravery and philosophical nature. Lily was diagnosed with celiac disease at age three. In the intervening years she has learned to recognize the symptoms and knows which foods to avoid, but more importantly has learned how to enjoy food in all of its glory despite having this disease for which the only cure is a strict gluten-free diet for life.
Upon their little girl’s diagnosis, RonniLyn and her husband, Rob, set about educating themselves and decided that the first step should be to make their house 100% gluten free. “It was only right that Lily should be able to eat anything in our home,” she says. In the early days of experimenting with gluten-free products RonniLyn admits that a lot went in to the garbage. “Food is life. Food is love. We didn’t want to sacrifice quality and taste and we wanted Lily to know what good food tastes like.”
RonniLyn’s quest for quality and good-tasting gluten-free products became nothing short of an obsession. She combed the city in her search. During this period she realized that our city’s many farmers’ markets are good spots to source specialty products. As she started to become familiar with some of the producers, RonniLyn wondered how she could bring all of these artisans of quality together. “I’m amazed at how many people are making very innovative and natural products that are not only good for you but also taste so good. Food-wise, there is so much going on in this city.”
Much like the Wychwood Barns itself, where Gluten Free Garage takes place, “our pop-up gluten-free market has a way of bringing the community together,” RonniLyn says. She wants people to know that although all the food at Gluten Free Garage is safe for people with celiac disease and gluten intolerance, the event is not just for people with those issues. “It’s also for people who love food and quality products created locally by artisans who are exceptionally passionate about their craft.”
The vendors, which number more than 65, boast everything from baked goods to pasta to pirogies and dumplings to condiments to snack foods. Some operate out of gluten-free facilities and the others are all vetted to ensure that they clearly understand how to avoid cross-contamination. “It’s important that the event be entirely safe for those with celiac disease, including my daughter,” RonniLyn says. “It’s a really great opportunity for people to meet the vendors face-to-face so they can also ensure that the products are safe for them.”
The event itself has grown from that first one in 2012, which hosted about 50 vendors, to now also include guest speakers and even beer and cider tasting. “I like to think of Gluten Free Garage as a kind of urban farmers’ market with a gluten-free twist,” says RonniLyn with evident and understandable pride. “There are so many fantastic food events in the city, but for people with gluten intolerance or celiac it’s very limiting. You pay money to go to a food event and you might only get to try a couple of things if you’re lucky. I thought it was important for people who can’t eat gluten to have their own foodie event. And there is something for everyone—the meat eaters, vegetarians, vegans and those who are paleo, too.”
RonniLyn was thrilled to tell me that celiac advocate Jordan Middlebrook, perhaps better known as King Gluten Free on his popular social media platforms, will be a guest speaker. In addition there will be three well-known local nutritionists speaking about different aspects of living with and cooking gluten-free. And Ashley Wittig, co-owner of popular gluten-free and vegan Bunner’s Bakeshop, will be there as both a guest speaker and vendor.
Beyond RonniLyn’s efforts in bringing together the vendors and speakers, it is, she says, the support of the sponsors that make this event such a success. ItalPasta, Neal Brothers Foods, Hero Burgers and “official GFG grocer” Fiesta Farms, among other companies, help to make this event possible.
After just under an hour of conversation, I was moved by the obvious dedication that not only RonniLyn has regarding this subject but also those people with whom she works most closely to make it all happen. “Most of the people making these great products are doing so for some kind of personal reason or because a loved one, partner or family member is affected. And, at the end of the day I’m doing this for my daughter. This event is a labour of love.”
The Gluten Free Garage is kicking off Celiac Awareness Month with loads of options for those with celiac and gluten intolerance-and those without-on Sunday May 1, 2016 at the Wychwood Barns.
Stacia Carlton is a culinary school grad with a passion for all things food… gluten-free or otherwise. You can find her at www.bestillandeat.com where she obsesses about food weekly.